Mindfulness meditation trains us to be less reactive to whatever it is in life that causes us suffering. It gives us an ability to experience our own pain without identifying fully with it, and therefore to be more free from it. Because of that experience during meditation, we begin to fear life's pain less, to contract around it less. We become more easygoing with ourselves. We still suffer, but with much less of the dramatic flair that only adds to our suffering and makes it overwhelming.
We may be drawn to practice out of suffering, but meditation is not just for pain relief. It is also about joy. It is like a magnifying glass in the hands of a child on a sunny day. He holds the glass steady; the light concentrates on a spot on the ground; a dry leaf goes up in flame. Meditation can be a magnifying glass that lights the fire of happiness in our hearts. All of the conditions for happiness are available to us at any moment. Our job is to hold steady, to concentrate, and to allow our natural warmth to be released. Over time, mindfulness practice sensitizes our capacity for joy so much that even tiny physical and emotional pleasures can bring great happiness. When our minds are quiet and our hearts are strong, we see that the whole world is full of grace.
But how is this possible? How can sitting still teach us to relinquish suffering and embrace grace? The Buddha was reluctant to use words to answer this question. Instead, he just said, "Come and see." Or, as my friend who is a Jesuit priest says, "Everything gets sorted out in the Great Silence." Describing meditation is difficult, and it can make one sound like a moron, or a phony, or a shyster. "There's a two-thousand-year tradition of finding it impossible to describe," says Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who uses meditation and psychotherapy in tandem. The difficulty of talking about meditation lies not only in its experiential nature but also in the fact that the meditative experience takes us deeper and deeper into realms where language and even thought lose their potency.
There are some teachers and authors whose words come close to describing meditation. In this beautiful passage, the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen counsels meditators to cultivate patience in their practice:
Patience is a hard discipline. It is not just waiting until something happens over which we have no control: the arrival of the bus, the end of the rain, the return of a friend, the resolution of a conflict. Patience is not waiting passively until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. When we are impatient, we try to get away from where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, and somewhere else. Let's be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand.